Beaming boss Gray hails outstanding Darlington

Back on track. After events of the previous week, a win was all that mattered to Darlington, no matter how it came.

It took another second-half comeback and a late penalty, their eighth spot-kick of the season, to secure the much-needed points on Saturday at Celtic Nation so this morning their lead at the top of the Ebac Northern League has again stretched to seven points. Job done

Seven days previously, their 13-match winning run ended when they lost only their second league game, at West Auckland, and the aftermath included various players being reported to the Durham FA. A bad week for all concerned.

So a win was needed to not only enhance Quakers' advantage over second-placed Spennymoor Town, who were on FA Vase duty, but to boost morale.

Playing against fiercely determined opposition on a bog of a pitch no better than those in the South Park come January, it was a win that was as hard-earned as any will be this season.

Buoyant manager Martin Gray beamed: "The players were outstanding, absolutely outstanding, on what was a really horrendous pitch. They tried to keep the ball down to pass it.

"What's most pleasing is that they responded to last Saturday and it was important to win due to other clubs playing in the Vase. That was in the back of my mind, so that is three points we've got on the board.

"It was great to see our centre-forwards get a goal apiece and it could have been so many more."

David Dowson and Stephen Thompson got on the scoresheet, though they were both among players who squandered chances during a one-sided first half in which Quakers carved open Celtic.

But it was the hosts who led at the break, thanks to Michael Reed's near post header on 13 minutes, and he almost did the same again when meeting a left-wing cross just before half-time, but in between it was Darlington who peppered Ryan Smith's goal.

A mixture of poor finishing by Quakers and stubborn defending by a side that included former Darlington right-back Paul Arnison meant the visitors had to remain patient.

They kept possession for lengthy spells and the pick of their chances saw Dowson have only the keeper to beat, while Thompson should have been awarded a penalty when pushed by David Wallace.

Gray said: "Our first half performance was outstanding, apart from conceding a cheap goal, it was like the first half at West Auckland last week, but we must have created double the number of chances today.

"Because of our attacking play, I always think that we will score goals and I've got so much belief in them. They came up trumps.

"It was all about the players being positive and creating chances. We wore Celtic down and the work ethic was fantastic.

"Shaun Reay and David Dowson at the end didn't give Arnison a chance, he didn't know what to do and dribbled towards his own goal, and that was typical of the workrate. It's what I demand of them all."

The goal that Darlington deserved came on 53 minutes, Dowson collecting a pass from Thompson before turning to shoot low past Smith. Thompson, Dowson, goal - it's become a familiar combination.

Celtic responded and made a fight of it, though they failed to test Quakers keeper Craig Turns. His best work was a first half save from Reed as well as quickly coming off his line to stop the same player just before Thompson scored.

Left-back Jeff Smith, another former Quakers player, curled a free-kick just wide, but in the closing stages Darlington upped the tempo. That they were able to do so on a heavy pitch vindicated Gray's decision to make wholesale changes in last week's Northern League Cup tie with Spennymoor.

Only left-back Dan Smith started both on Wednesday and Saturday, and Gray said: "Imagine having to play on that heavy pitch having also played on Wednesday.

"It was crucial that the lads were able to rest up for today."

Chances again came and went. Arnison blocked Thompson's shot on the turn while a Joe Tait free-kick deflected off the top of the wall into the keeper's hands.

The goal they craved finally arrived, though there was an element of surprise when the referee pointed to the spot, apparently punishing Wallace for a push on Amar Purewal. "He pulled Amar down apparently, but I didn't see it," said Gray. "It's one of them, as a manager it was too far away to see it. I spoke to Paul Arnison and he said it was a penalty.

"Thompson should have had a penalty in the first half, that was the easier one to give, but the ref didn't give it."

Just like at West Auckland, Thompson put Darlington ahead from the spot, but this time it earned victory and Quakers hope this will be the beginning of another winning streak.

* Quakers are holding a fans forum this evening at the Blackwell Grange Hotel, Darlington. Starting at 7.30pm, the board and manager Martin Gray will answer questions from the audience.

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